Friday, October 23, 2009

Out of This World

Death, Ghosts, and the Roots of Theosophy

By Greg Guma

On November 8 from 1-4 p.m., I will discuss Spirits of Desire, my novel about ghosts, the afterlife and the roots of Theosophy, at The Sacred Bean in Prescott, Arizona. Here is part one of an essay exploring the themes of the book.

Ghosts and the Machine

Belief in ghosts and the survival of some immaterial essence beyond the span of human life dates back thousands of years. Ancient Egyptians would visit the family plots of departed relations to provide food and clothing for the journey beyond, and Enlightenment-era scientists conducted ghoulish experiments to determine the precise location of the soul. At the start of the 20th century, Duncan Macdougall, a respected surgeon, thought he had determined the precise weight of the soul by using an ornate Fairbanks scale to track weight loss as people died.

Most religions tell us that the soul goes somewhere after death — traveling to heaven, hell, or a pleasant afterlife resort; reincarnating into a new body; or remaining in the ground until the Second Coming. Obviously, they can’t all be right. But solid evidence is tough to find, and despite some credible research conducted by scientists, the results have been inconclusive so far.

In Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, author Mary Roach attempts to settle the question, and ultimately concludes that although most accounts of reincarnation and life after death aren’t completely convincing, not all can be easily explained away. After a year on the road, visiting labs, observing supposedly reincarnated children, and enrolling in a medium school, she ended up by choosing to believe in the possibility of an undefined “something” more.

My own research began in the 1970s, sparked by synchronicity and an unexplainable “journey.” After receiving a book by Helena Blavatsky, the famous Russian occultist and founder of the theosophical movement, published in 1888 — the same year as a “lucky” silver dollar I used to carry in my pocket and also the publication date of an unusual antique book that had mysteriously “appeared” in my apartment — I became curious about what such coincidences might mean. That led to the discovery of a key turning point in Blavatsky’s life: her first encounter with a psychic investigator named Henry Olcott in Vermont.

In 1874, Blavatsky followed Olcott to Chittenden, a small town near Rutland, to see the “manifestations” of William Eddy, an alleged medium. Their resulting alliance led directly to the founding of Theosophy, the synthesis of Buddhism, occultism, and Western philosophy that became enormously influential in subsequent decades.

It was a strange time, an explosive era of spiritualism as well as a period of rapid industrialization, economic depression, and political corruption. Interest in “spirit” phenomena had been building since 1848, when reports circulated that two teenage sisters in upstate New York could stimulate “spirit rappings.” By the early 1870s, little Chittenden had become a popular pilgrimage site for those interested in contacting deceased relatives and friends in the Eddy family’s “circle room,” a second floor séance hall in their farmhouse.

The local press was not impressed. A June 29, 1874, article in the Rutland Herald pronounced the Eddy manifestations “the vilest deception upon whoever they can get to pay 50 cents for being duped.” But Olcott, a retired colonel who had looked into naval yard corruption during the Civil War, had an open mind, and spent more than two months in Vermont, looking into the case and publishing his findings in New York city newspapers. One of his stories attracted Blavatsky’s attention.

According to his accounts, later published in book form as People from the Other World, the nightly materialization of “spirit forms” included Native Americans, children, and deceased businessmen, along with disembodied hands playing musical instruments, and, once Blavatsky turned up, exotic visitors from the other side of the world.

Although Olcott felt that some of the alleged phenomena might be fake, he couldn’t disprove everything he witnessed. Like doctor Macdougall, at one point he used a Fairbanks scale in an attempt to weigh a spirit. With special access to the tiny closet in which William Eddy sat during his trances, he concluded that there were no secret compartments; in short, no way to explain how so many “spirits” could appear and disappear.

During the same period, the paranormal craze was spreading across Vermont. In Whitingham, for example, the windows of a local doctor were being “mysteriously covered with etchings of a strange variety, in which believers see the portraits of dead friends,” reported The Burlington Free Press on October 1. A few weeks later, according to the Rutland Herald, large stones began to fall on the home of a Pownal farmer “with such velocity so as to tear nearly through the shingles or clapboards.”

The notoriety of the Eddy séances also attracted the attention of a celebrity doctor from New York City, George Miller Beard, one of the first to experiment with electricity as a stimulant to deal with nervous disorders. Convinced that spiritualism was hokum and materializations had to be a case of mass delusion, he came to Chittenden to observe, debunk, and apply a strong electric current to one of the “spirits.”

Here is an excerpt from Spirits of Desire, the novel I wrote about the Eddy manifestations and the unusual people who were attracted to their “ghost shop.” The narrator of this episode is Theodore Noyes, a young doctor whose father founded the utopian spiritual community, Oneida, in upstate New York. It picks up in mid-October, 1874 when Dr. Beard shows up with his latest gadget:


Placing a large valice on a table in the Vermont farmhouse , Beard threw open its flaps and pulled out a rectangular machine. Along the top of the device were several rods and terminals. His audience pressed closer, touching parts and mumbling theories. He welcomed the inspection until someone began pulling on one of the rods.

"Careful, please. That completes the circuit. It's a battery. Normally I use it to ease disorders of the nerves and skin. Current passes through wires to the electrodes."

"But what can it prove?" Horatio Eddy snapped.

"If I apply enough current while one of your spirits is connected, the results will be unmistakable. A ghost won't feel a thing. An imposter will get the shock of his life."

Horatio looked toward Henry Olcott for advice. But the reporter was divided, trapped between suspicion and a desire for further evidence. At the time, Theo Noyes had seen no solid reason to object. It was Beard, not his machine, he found objectionable.

After conferring briefly with his brother, William Eddy, who looked over the battery and Beard without a word, Horatio agreed to let the doctor attend -- with the understanding that seance regular Ed Pritchard would handle the gadget's controls. Beard started to object but reconsidered, wary of pressing his luck.

Why hadn't he stopped it? Theo chided himself. The man had obviously come here to discredit the Eddy family. No matter how well Beard disguised it, his goal was exposure, not science. The answer, in two words: suspicion and curiosity. Theo was deeply suspicious about Beard, but also harbored doubts about the phantoms. And he was too curious not to see which suspicion was correct.

The evening's miracles began well enough, but ultimately turned into quite a horror. Once the audience was seated in what the Eddy family called the Circle Room and Horatio was tied to a chair behind a curtain, a fiddle and tambourine floated into the air, where they were played – somewhat incompetently – by disembodied hands. Even more dumbfounding was the next phase; with William, the family's chief medium, sitting in his cabinet, a series of spirits introduced themselves.

Frustrated and confused, Beard eventually demanded the battery test. The device was waiting on a table at the side of the stage, preset for a powerful current. He had examined the setting and connected the wires himself. Ed Pritchard coaxed a phantom Indian squaw, Honto, into holding up her hands, moistened them, and attached the electrodes.

Sparks jumped at the terminals, lighting a corner of the room. Oblivious to the experiment, however, Honto just smiled, her hands limp at her sides. As the circuit was completed, the spirit glowed brightly but still didn't move. If anything, she appeared to be gaining strength.

This was surely no illusion. Watching the phantom, Theo felt as he imagined his father had during a moment of sublime illumination. He was filled with a certainty no rational argument could shake. The room, the spirit, the bench beneath him – everything was sending out waves of energy. He was no longer sitting in the second row, he was above it, beyond the ceiling – both in the room and watching it at the same time. The electric current passing through the spirit was also moving through him, propelling him into a strange new awareness. Honto was neither a human being nor a ghost, he felt. She was a form – animated but not alive. Suddenly, Theo could see the difference between her and all the living beings around him. He couldn't express it yet, but the awareness was growing.

"No!" Beard shouted. "You're making a mistake."

Pushing Pritchard aside, he yanked hard on the rod. Honto was still smiling. He checked the terminals and traced the wires. Noticing him, she raised her hands. This startled the doctor, who was utterly petrified by his proximity to the unknown, lost, cut adrift from everything he knew. He had come face-to-face with a fact he could not negate.

But Honto was frightened too, and shrunk back toward the closet, pulling free from the wires. The electrodes hissed as they dropped to the floor. Before Beard could reach her, Pritchard moved between them, stepping into the glowing light that emanated from her form. As they tenderly embraced, a deafening rumble filled the Circle Room, then an explosion of wind and even brighter light.

To be continued on October 26.

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